The business of child detention

The business of child detention


Written by: Imogen Tyler, Nick Gill, Deirdre Conlon & Ceri Oeppen

Below we reproduce an excerpt from an article in the current issue of Race & Class on the consequences of the co-option of charities and voluntary organisations within the immigration detention market.

As a principle, migrant children should not be subjected to detention. (Council of Europe, Commissioner for Human Rights)[1]

At Barnado’s, we believe in children – no matter who they are, what they have done or what they have been through. We believe in the vulnerable, the abused and the forgotten. We will support them, stand up for them and bring out the best in each and every child. (Barnardo’s, 2012)[2]

How can a charity which exists to protect the most vulnerable children in our society, assist in the detention and deportation of children? Barnardo’s disgusts me. (Focus Group Participant, 2012)

‘Doing the right thing’

In their 2010 election manifesto the Liberal Democrat Party, then the third-biggest political party in the UK, pledged a series of radical policy reforms that vowed to make the UK migration system more just and humane, including ‘ending the detention of children for immigration purposes’, allowing asylum seekers to work whilst their claims were being processed and introducing a route to citizenship (amnesty) for the estimated 500,000 to 1 million ‘illegal’ immigrants who had been resident in Britain for at least ten years without papers.[3] On 12 May 2010, a new coalition government between the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties was formed. As details of the coalition agreement emerged, it transpired that the only element of the Liberal Democrats’ progressive agenda on migration which had survived was the pledge to end the detention of children. On 16 December 2010, Nick Clegg, Britain’s Deputy Prime-Minister (and leader of the Liberal Democrat Party), took to a podium in St Luke’s charity and community centre in London to announce to waiting television news reporters that ‘the moral outrage’ of child detention was to end. Clegg stated:

[W]e are ending the detention of children for immigration purposes in the UK … we are ending the shameful practice that last year alone saw over 1000 children – 1000 innocent children – imprisoned … today’s announcement marks a big culture shift within our immigration system. One that puts our values – the protection of children – above paranoia over our borders. One that prioritises doing the right thing over looking and sounding tough.

However, in 2011, details of plans to open a new specialist family detention centre in England emerged. Named CEDARS – an acronym for Compassion, Empathy, Dignity, Approachability, Respect and Support – this detention centre is run under novel governance arrangements by the Home Office, the private security company G4S and the children’s charity Barnardo’s. This was not in fact ‘the end of child detention’, but rather, as one government minister put it, ‘the end of child detention as we know it’; in Clegg’s later revision, they ‘ended child detention as it existed under Labour’.[4] This obfuscating rhetoric was satirised by the British political cartoonist Martin Rowson in his cartoon ‘The Pinocchio Protocol’ (see below), which depicts government ministers detaining a child with ‘double-speak’ while growing gigantic prison-bar noses.

The Pinochhio Protocol by Martin Rowson
The Pinochhio Protocol by Martin Rowson

The dilemmas of co-option

At a time when migrants’ rights and migrants’ lives were becoming increasingly precarious as a seemingly endless ‘armoury of technologies of control and exclusion’ was being mobilised against unwanted migrants,[5] we surveyed 130 migrant support groups, interviewed thirty-five groups in-depth, observed a series of advocacy and activist meetings, and undertook focus groups around ‘live’ issues and relevant debates in this diverse sector.[6] Cuts in welfare provision and legal aid, diminishing human and economic resources amongst charities and voluntary groups, combined with the political and media scapegoating of migrants, created a toxic environment for irregular migrants in everyday contexts.

One common concern amongst the UK-based migrant advocacy and support groups we worked with was that a preoccupation with economic survival was diverting resources away from oppositional forms of practice. Organisations in this sector were under pressure to abandon principles of autonomy and bid for UK Border Agency (UKBA) contracts and/or to enter into contractual arrangements with private corporations (such as Serco and G4S) commissioned to run the UK’s immigration detention centres and manage housing provision as well as other services for asylum seekers in the UK. Private sector bids for government contracts are reliant upon corporations being able to demonstrate competence and expertise in working with migrants. As this expertise is largely the preserve of public and third-sector organisations, corporations are keen to enter into partnership with them. As John Grayson of South Yorkshire Migration and Asylum Action Group (SYMAAG) notes on the shift to the private contracting of housing for asylum seekers:

In their efforts to extend their ‘asylum markets’ and ‘detention estates’ into asylum housing, all the private security companies involved in the £620 million contracts – G4S, Serco and Reliance – set out to encourage voluntary organisations, and charitable housing associations with experience in refugee and asylum housing and services, into partnerships as subcontractors. None of the security companies favoured by the Home Office had any previous experience in the field of housing – they needed to absorb and build in this experience, and credibility, to the contract bids.

While third-sector and private-sector commissioning is commonplace in the delivery of statutory migrant services in the USA and some parts of Europe, tensions around this shift from advocacy to service provision are acute in the UK. This is due in part to a spate of high-profile scandals involving G4S and SERCO, including failures to safe-guard migrants in their care, leading to the deaths of migrants during detention and deportation.[7] Many of our research participants felt that the compromise involved in entering into partnerships with state and/or corporate organisations was fundamentally eroding the capacity of advocacy organisations to effectively protest the deleterious effect of border-control mechanisms on migrants’ lives.

Tensions between individuals and groups with different perspectives on this evolving commissioning culture emerged most dramatically in the focus groups we held at the end of our project. The case of CEDARS and Barnardo’s raised what Frances Webber describes as ‘the vexed question of when, if and how we should engage with statutory bodies and whether it is possible to do so without jeopardising the principles which led us to get involved in this work in the first place’. In these focus groups, our research participants were asking themselves, each other and us: what happens when migrant support and advocacy organisations are ‘repurposed’ as service providers? What is the impact of this shift on the ethos, politics and ‘cause’ of these groups and organisations? Does co-option within the newly devolved landscape of service provision undermine the capacity of migrant advocacy groups to resist and oppose the very border control regimes and politics of exclusion which they were ostensibly set up to contest?

RAC_cover_template.qxdYou can read the rest of this article in the current issue of Race & Class, which is available to purchase for £5 or you can download the article here for US$25.


IRR News story: The fading red line: Barnardo’s role in the detention and removal of children

IRR News story: Does Barnardo’s legitimise child detention?

Imogen Tyler is a senior lecturer in Sociology at Lancaster University and author of Revolting Subjects: social abjection and resistance in neoliberal Britain (Zed, 2013). Nick Gill is a senior lecturer in Human Geography at Exeter University. Deirdre Conlon is a lecturer in Critical Human Geography at the University of Leeds. Ceri Oeppen is a lecturer in Geography at Sussex University. [1] Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Positions on the Rights of Minor Migrants in an Irregular Situation (Strasbourg, Council of Europe, 2010). [2] Barnado’s, Annual Report and Accounts 2012. [3] Liberal Democrat Manifesto 2010 (London, Liberal Democrats, 2010). [4] Nick Clegg and Barbara Nalumu, ‘We are proud of having ended child detention’, Guardian (29 October 2012). [5] Peter Nyers, ‘Abject cosmopolitanism: the politics of protection in the anti-deportation movement’, Third World Quarterly (Vol. 24, no. 6, 2003), pp. 1069–93. [6] This article draws upon data from a research project that examined the challenges faced by migrant support organisations in the UK and the US (this paper focuses on data gathered in the UK). Economic and Social Research Council funded, 2010–12 (ref. ES/J021814/1). See also Nick Gill, Deirdre Conlon, Ceri Oeppen and Imogen Tyler, Networks of Asylum Support in the UK and USA: a handbook of ideas, strategies and best practice for asylum support groups in a challenging social and economic climate (2012). [7] See, for example, Matthew Taylor, ‘Jimmy Mubenga coroner issues damning report on deportations’, Guardian (4 August 2013) and Diane Taylor, ‘Detention centre failures contributed to death of asylum seeker, inquest finds’, Guardian (25 May 2012).

The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.

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